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Ray Davies - Other People's Lives Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 February 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    4
sound:    3
released:    2006
label:    V2
reviewed by:    Matt Fink

ImageIn some ways, the smartest decision the Beatles ever made was to break up while they were still great. Though that choice was likely far more influenced by interpersonal difficulties than any prescient desire to walk off into the sunset at the top of their game, a casual listen to the last 20 years of albums from the likes of the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Paul Simon indicates that there is such a thing as staying at the party a bit too long. Of course, no one is going to blame such artists for continuing to write and record, especially when nostalgia is so amazingly profitable, but a sober analysis of their situations will reveal that they’re helplessly locked in a Catch-22. If they make music that sounds similar to what they’ve already done, they’ll almost certainly be writing songs that will be inferior to their classic material. If they attempt to reinvent themselves, they’ll alienate their core listeners and likely push themselves into creative territory that doesn’t flatter them. For anyone who has wondered why primary rock and roll architects such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino have ceased to record, apparently content to play a few shows a year and be legends, records like Ray Davies’ Other People’s Lives provide an answer.

One of British rock’s greatest songwriters, responsible for a string of records with the Kinks that were arguably the equal of most anything produced by the Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards teams, Ray Davies is the quintessential British songwriter. From the pile-driving riff rock of proto-punk smash “You Really Got Me” to his charmingly sincere tribute to English hamlet life on 1968’s The Kinks Are the Preservation Green Society, he is the consummate writer. At his best his songs are clever, quaint, biting and wistful in equal measures, whether poking fun of hipsters in “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” or describing an encounter with a transvestite in “Lola.” But somewhere along the line, around 1979’s Low Budget, Davies lost track of his muses and became something of a parody of himself. The Kinks would limp through six more records that no one remembers and eventually go into extended animation with 1994’s To the Bone, an acoustic re-imagining of their classic tracks that prepared Davies to spend the rest of the decade touring alone with his stories and his greatest hits. Of course, since those songs are great and his catalogue is deep, Davies was able to bask in the goodwill and warm feelings of being one of rock’s true visionaries, finally getting the respect that was due him from a generation of listeners who simply overlooked him due to the presence of his more outlandish ‘60s contemporaries. Then, in attempt to add another layer of polish to his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame plaque, he decided to make his first official solo album. It was his first misstep in a decade. Not surprisingly, Other People’s Lives isn’t going to push any Kinks releases out of the rock canon. Neither retro nor modern, it’s an album frozen in the blandly produced late ‘80s, awash with neatly distorted guitars, stuffy keyboards, and tinny drumming. Needless to say, it sounds terrible for the same reasons that most of those albums sound dated today, choked with too many sounds and too little separation, just a thick, colorless mess. For a man who has performed in recent years with indie autuers such as Yo La Tengo and the New Pornographers as his backing bands, Davies’ album indicates no interest in making any appeal to a modern audience. His artistic stubbornness is admirable, but for an artist who traversed so many eras and sounds so brilliantly – from the crackle and fuzz of garage rock to the warm textures of dancehall country and the over-amped bluster of arena rock – why did he have to revisit to the sounds from his career nadir?

Production quibbles aside, Davies is only slightly more successful as a lyricist. At 62 he is showing his age, and where he once mused poignantly on the state of British society and poked holes in the absurdity of modern life, he now is focused – almost morbidly – on mortality and maturity. Of course, such themes are a rich subtext for an artist who truly wants to explore them in all their implications (think Johnny Cash), but Davies seems disinterested, not quite willing to commit to such a sober undertaking. What wisdom would Davies like to impart from his six decades on earth? Well, for one, he hates the paparazzi. “A poison pen can ruin your day/as tabloid judges sharpen up their lies,” he declares over nylon-stringed guitar and a breezy Spanish lilt on the title track. Further, he’s a bit jaded toward former lovers, whether ruminating on a Dear John letter over chunky guitar riffs on “All She Wore” or chiding a girlfriend for her lack of trust on the blandly jazzy “Creatures of Little Faith.” As such, Davies’ exposition on life and aging is neither affecting nor particularly insightful. They’re just the surprisingly commonplace thoughts of a man who has observed that things have changed, leaving him without anything particularly profound to say about it.

Sometimes, Davies simply sounds depressed. “Don’t turn into a total embarrassment to your friends and family,” he sings in the playfully cheery “Is There Life After Breakfast.” “Get out of bed, the whole day’s ahead/so take the pills and drink your tea.” With brightly chiming mandolin and chirpy harmonica, it’s one of the few moments where the arrangement actually shows a dynamic quality that goes beyond the song’s most basic riff and chord progressions. Intentional or not, his awkward attempts to be positive make the songs where he longs for escape seem all the more unconvincing. “You’re a lonesome train,” he says, offering a tired cliché on “The Getaway,” a kind of bluesy, mostly bland mélange of dobro and trite singer-songwriterisms. “It’s time you made your getaway.”

Musically, the songs are just drab, bogged down with a series of boring mid-tempo chord progressions and blandly textured arrangements that each hang around a minute or two longer than they should. With hardly a trace of his British roots, these songs are a lifeless amalgam of Americana and middle-of-the-road pop/rock, from the watery jazzy wah-wah guitar chords of “Over My Head” to the unconvincingly bouncy pop culture criticism in “Stand Up Comic.” The riffs are uninspired, the hooks are dull and listless, and no one seems to be having much fun. More than anything, these tedious, lifeless performances prove just how crucial Ray’s brother, guitarist Dave Davies, was to the Kinks’ mix. Neither celebratory nor solemn, it’s an album without any clear feeling or emotion, with little joy or darkness to leave a lasting impression.

Luckily, Davies has saved his best for last, providing a stirring reminder with the classily soulful “Thanksgiving Day” of just how smart and incisive he can be as a songwriter. With richly mewing organ, perfectly pulsing horns, and a series of three unconnected vignettes, he focuses on American life by profiling and contrasting a loving family, a lonely spinster and a regretful trucker, and how each spends their turkey day. “Papa looks over at the small gathering,” Davies croons thoughtfully, “and remembering days gone by/smiles at the children as he watches them play/and wishes his wife was still by his side.” And all at once, you’re reminded of just how moving and penetrating Davies can be as a storyteller, just how sharp he is when he turns his gaze away from himself.

The good news is, even an album this tepid can’t tarnish Ray Davies’ legacy. In fact, these songs wouldn’t be nearly so bad if they were simply produced a bit better, and a little understatement and dynamism would go a long way to make average songs substantially more engaging. Where some songwriters can excel with sounding confused and conflicted, turning the awkwardness of aging into a boldly penetrating statement, Davies doesn’t seem very intentional in the ways that his emotions leak out of him. At the end of the day, despite a few flashes of his old genius, these songs are simply not that good, suffering both from a lack of vision and a shortage of personality. In the end, Ray Davies may very well have more to say as an artist, but Other People’s Lives is only a footnote for a legend who might have been better off just playing the greatest hits.

As stated, the production is nothing short of unfortunate. The textures are lumbering, bulky and dated in every sense. The textures run together in a big murky, suffocating mess, crammed full of thick fragments that are without color or character. Davies’ vocals are appropriately high in the mix, double-tracked on choruses, and always retaining his warm and measured tone. Unfortunately, the arrangements and production don’t serve him well at all, lacking the nuance and theatricality of his best songs and overwhelming the subtle nature of his performances.

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